7 Sep 2015

Back to life on the outside

11:01 am on 7 September 2015

The odds are against anyone coming out of prison with multiple convictions and a gang patch. Lionel Ford is taking his chances and hoping for a better life.

Lionel Ford left jail on July 1 after a five-month sentence, with a cheque for $350 in his pocket and a ride from his patched mates to a block of state houses on Old Farm Rd in Hamilton, where he stays as he tries to get his things in order.  

“It’s pretty out of it, says Ford, looking around the streets at the majority of houses that are now boarded up, “because these places were full the last time I was here”.

That was before he went to jail.

He stands with his back to the street and has a smoke. Dark shades and a cap backwards and a black vest with a bright yellow gang emblem, and these things transform him. Without the gear, it’s hard to imagine him inside your house, uninvited.

He’s 27 years old, 1.7m tall, 86kgs. He speaks without a shred of confidence and this makes him hard to hear. His friends describe him simply as quiet, shy. While others talk, he looks like he is trying to solve a puzzle. He says he’s distracted and has still got to get his head straight.

Statistically, Lionel Ford’s chances of staying out of jail are about as miserable as they come. He’s male, a Pacific Islander, under 30, and a gang affiliate with multiple burglary charges. This last prison lag was his third.

He has five kids, a partner in jail, and no real plan about how he’s going to get it together. To us, he says, it may seem easy, staying out of jail.

“Yeah, it seems easy, but you’ve got to worry about all sorts of things. You’re going fine and then next minute, you end up involved with something. You breach your bail and you’re back in prison. They look at your past and even if your past was six years ago, they look at it and they don’t look at what you’ve done to change in the meantime.”

When he was young, Ford stole the things his mum couldn’t buy him. He committed his first crime at age 11. “Probably because I was just young and wanted to be cool with the other bros, I dunno.”

He broke into a car in South Auckland and though he’d never driven before, he managed to find second gear and make it some way up the road before the cops caught him.

He grabbed me by the face and slammed me against the wall and started body shotting me. My mate was in the other room getting a phone book on his face. It made me hate the system.

“We were just buzzing out, eh,” he says, “the thrill of it, eh.” He got arrested after that. “The cop took us to the police cell and I didn’t know at that time, I was only youth, as soon as they put you in the police cell they are supposed to take your handcuffs off you.

“The cop comes up, asked me for my first name, last name, goes back out, comes back in, says ‘why are you lying’? Reckons how come you didn’t tell me your middle name and I said ‘cause you never asked.

“Then he grabbed me by the face and slammed me against the wall and started body shotting me. My mate was in the other room getting a phone book on his face. It made me hate the system.”

And it killed his dream. “Yeah, I wanted to be a cop - until that day happened.”

This year’s stint was because Lionel went into businesses and stole “I dunno, things. Probably just computers, I took them and then rebooted them, but I’m not doing it now.”

He says he probably needed the money.

Lionel doesn’t think much about the people he’s stolen from: “How I feel is, like, it is what it is.” Then one day it happened to him and he thought “aw, ratshit, this is what they must’ve felt like, looking out your window at everyone walkin’ past and seein’ who’s looking at your house. Funny, eh.”

He says he’s not too worried what people think about him. But when he walks through town in his dark shades and gang gears, he watches people watching him and he does wonder, sometimes.

Before the last lag, Lionel Ford lived with his partner of 10 years and their five kids in a rented house. She was on a course and he took care of Tatiana, 9, “me and my partner liked the name, we were still young ourselves when she was born”, Cruso, 6, “my partner’s brother’s middle name is Caruso, so I said why don’t we call him Cruso”, Wana, 4, “named after his grandfather” Hanaqtia, 2, “from Hana and qtalia is just, yeah,” and “little Emma,” not yet one, “named after my mum”.

Ford had been “on the run” and it eventually caught up with him this year. He tried to get home detention and was denied. The judge said granting that would set him up to fail. A week before he was released, his partner went to jail and his children were placed in care. He hasn’t seen them since he’s been out. He wants to get them back.

He wants to stay out of jail for at least seven years, but he’s not so sure he’ll make it that long. “Yip, I’ll try not to go back. I think it’s gonna get harder now, because I’ve gotta still clear my head up.”

And he’s got to live.

Lionel blew the $350 he walked out of prison with straight away on “a accidental good time”. Since then he’s relied on work from within the gang he’s belonged to for the last three years.

Yeah, I wanted to be a cop - until that day happened.

“If you’ve got no job when you come out of jail, you’ve had it,” says Tribal Huk gang leader Jamie Pink. “Lionel, he’s working. He helps out making sandwiches, he goes out to the farm, he’s a busy boy. He stays in one of our places, that’s his board, and he’s getting his family sorted. He’s thinking right, it’s just, ‘Come on, bro, don’t do anything silly’.”

All up, he’s done three-and-a-half years jail time, and one course inside that took a day to complete. He’s said no to others. The Out of Gate programme run by Corrections was set up in 2013 to help prisoners like him prepare for life outside: work, accommodation, support, even someone to pick them up when they come out of jail. Lionel had his ride lined up.

On a cold day he walks around, in dark shades, his cap backwards, wearing a black vest with a bright yellow gang emblem, and he salutes the gang boss. These things transform him. He’s patched up for life, he says.

Belonging to a gang equates statistically to an almost 75 per cent chance he’ll be reconvicted within 24 months, according to the Department of Corrections, but he thinks the chances would be even higher if he came out to nothing.

“I was lucky to have the bros, the Tribal Huks there for me as my family. Just cause, umm, yeah, I pretty much lost everything when I got out. I was just happy Jamie would help me.”

The gang leader stands outside the house on Old Farm Road and says we will always have gangs. “People aren’t getting looked after and put on the right track. Their chances of going to gangs are huge, because that’s their family. That’s the only ones that are gonna look after them. You’re always gonna get people like us. We have a reason to exist, I’ll put it that way.”

Pink drives away in a flash black car a few minutes later and his Huk boys yell “Hail, Hail” until he's out of sight. On their way inside, Lionel Ford finds a bag full of sandwiches has been left for them on the step.

Video shot and edited by Blair Martin.

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